Keys to the Kingdom, with Dan Cockerell, Episode #49

Most people who’ve worked for the Walt Disney company will tell you, it’s a delightful place to work, grow, and learn. Dan Cockerell will tell you so in glowing terms. After college and participation in the Disney college program, he chose to work for Disney. His beginning role wasn’t a glamorous one — he parked cars. But that humble beginning was the trailhead that led him down the path of personal and career development. He eventually filled the role of VP of The Magic Kingdom. That’s quite a progression and the story is worth hearing. Listen to hear Dan’s valuable insights into personal growth, management, company culture, and a mindset that leads to success.

  • Dan’s road from parking attendant to VP of Disney’s Magic Kingdom [2:55]
  • The ins and outs of the Disney college program — learning, earning, living [5:48]
  • How technology impacted Dan’s journey at Disney [7:56]
  • A powerful tip about creating amazing culture in an organization [11:38]
  • Culture stories from inside Disney [14:01]
  • Moving managers toward facilitating excess, not having all the answers [18:53]
  • Favorite roles Dan filled in Disney [22:02]
  • Intentional reflection puts Dan in the right mindset for success [25:24]
  • The catalyst that moved Dan away from his role at Disney [27:09]
  • Advice for the dual-income, dual-career families [32:55]
  • What Dan did today to bring joy and put him in the right mindset for success [35:18]

Organizational culture must grow purposefully

There is much talk these days about organizational culture, but what does the term really mean? Dan has not only been in the trenches creating company culture at Disney, he’s also studied the topic thoroughly. His favorite explanation of organizational culture is expressed in the question, “How are things done around here?” If you can clearly articulate the answer to that question and equip your team accordingly, you’re on the right path.

But Dan says it doesn’t come automatically. You must be intentional about culture. Start by asking, “What do you want to happen?” For example: Do you want an organization where ideas are shared enthusiastically and openly? Then you’d better reward that behavior instead of shutting it down. Do you want your company to always be on the road to improvement? Then you need to create ways for people to offer suggestions and be humble enough to take them. In Dan’s mind, when you get this right, it’s one of the most significant things that will move your company toward success. In fact, he says, “Shared values almost guarantee success.”

Managers don’t need to have all the answers, they just facilitate success

Managers in any organization are in a tough spot. They have the privilege of overseeing and guiding culture and results and are at the same time responsible for seeing that both are what they need to be. Because of that important weight of responsibility, many managers feel they must have all the answers. But it’s not true. Dan recommends that managers recognize that they are seldom the ones on the front line touching the customer and creating wonderful experiences for them. By understanding this, it frees managers to become the equippers of those who do create customer experiences.

Ego gets the best of all of us from time to time, but Dan says proving how smart we are as a manager doesn’t provide value to anyone. What matters when it comes to leading people well is giving value to those who are delivering the experience to customers. That’s what creates the desire in a customer to return again and again. This valuable lesson, learned during his time at Disney, is obviously implemented daily in the Magic Kingdom. There’s proof that his advice is on-point.

Magic like Disney makes doesn’t happen magically

It’s easy to look at a massive, successful company like Disney and think it has some secret formula that made it the company that it is. Dan says the first secret is to know that there is no secret. It comes down to planning and execution. Intangibles like culture, customer service, and team relationships need to be broken down into tactics and actions. To do that, leaders must ask, “What can be done to implement? The answers to that question must be practical and applied. Magic doesn’t happen, it happens by having a plan, taking care of people, understanding what you’re trying to get done, and creating clarity for your team about HOW you’re going to accomplish it..

In this episode, Dan reveals the secrets behind Disney’s success, but more importantly, he removes the mystery and makes it accessible to any manager or leader. Your organization can have the same level of effectiveness in your sphere of influence if you listen, learn, and apply what Dan shares.

Resources & People Mentioned

Connect with Dan Cockerell


Dan attended Boston University, graduating in 1991, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science. An avid rugby player, he was selected for the 1990 and 1991 USA Collegiate All-American Rugby team, and was Captain for the 1991 team. Upon graduation from Boston University in 1991, Dan moved to Florida and worked as a parking attendant at Disney’s Epcot Center. Subsequently, he joined the Disneyland Paris Management Trainee Program. He was transferred to France to join the opening team of Disneyland Paris three months prior to the grand opening. While in France, he held various management positions in Park Operations. He and his wife Valerie, who was also with Disneyland Paris, were married in France and spent five years there before moving back to Orlando in 1997. Since that time they have raised three children – Jullian, Margot and Tristan.

Dan has held various executive operations roles at the Walt Disney World Resort, both in the theme parks and resort hotels, and retired as the Vice President of the Magic Kingdom where he led 12,000 cast members and entertained over 20 millions guests annually. He earned his MBA in 2001 at the Crummer School of Business at Rollins College. In addition to his operational responsibilities, Dan was a keynote speaker for the world-renowned Disney Institute for 18 years. He has addressed open-enrollment participants as well as attendees in customized programs including the USAA Bank, General Motors, the U.S. Department of State,

the U.S. Army, the Southern Methodist University Business School, Porsche A.G., and United Airlines. He also participated in the Sodexo Quality Life Worldwide Conference Panel, moderated by Arianna Huffington, in 2015.

After a fulfilling and exciting 26-year career with the Walt Disney Company, and upon becoming empty nesters, Dan and Valerie made the decision to set out on a new venture and start their own consulting and speaking business. Dan provides customized, authentic presentations and insightful workshops focusing on leadership and management practices, drawing upon his extensive Disney career with relevant examples and inspiring storytelling.

Guests on the Mitlin Money Mindset Show are not affiliated with CWM, LLC, and opinions expressed herein may not be representative of CWM, LLC. CWM, LLC is not responsible for the guest’s content linked on this site.

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